For Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov, a battle with no end in sight

Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov remains jailed in Russia as filmmakers and politicians urge his release
Odessa film fest screens Oleg Sentsov's 'Gaamer' to raise legal defense funds for jailed director

On May 11, officers from Russia's Federal Security Bureau arrived at the Crimea home of movie director Oleg Sentsov, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Though Sentsov was known for his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and had aided Ukrainian soldiers in their ill-fated battle for the peninsula, he had also not been known as an especially political filmmaker. His previous features, “Gaamer” and “Rhino,” were genre-tinged stories about outcasts with little explicit political content.

But the security forces believed otherwise. They arrested Sentsov and transferred him to an undisclosed prison, likely in Moscow. After holding him without charges for three weeks — family and friends say they didn’t hear from him over this time — Russian authorities announced that Sentsov was being charged with bombing two World War II monuments and setting fire to several buildings, a charge of “terrorism” that carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years.

Last week he was denied bail, essentially meaning he would remain in a Russian prison at least until an October trial — and possibly much longer.

Sentsov’s case brings into uncomfortable focus what happens when filmmakers and other artists are caught up in a political movement, despite and at times even because they hold a higher profile than average citizens. The incident is hardly the only painful one for artists in Ukraine. Earlier this year, Serhiy Zhadan, the country’s most famous counterculture writer, was beaten in protests by presumed pro-Kremlin insurgents in the Russia-adjacent city of Kharkiv. “Friends, with me everything is okay,” he wrote on Facebook, though it was clear from some graphic photos that it was not.

On Tuesday night in Odessa, the Black Sea port town where Sentsov’s imprisonment has become a cause celebre, Sentsov’s producing partner and other professional collaborators screened “Gaamer” as part of a fundraiser at the Odessa Film Festival. Proceeds from ticket sales — about 500 in all — were earmarked for his legal defense fund and his family.

“They're accusing him of terrorism, but everyone who knows Oleg in person or his films will know he's not only unsuitable but that it’s absurd to accuse him and friends of this,” said Olga Zhurzhenko, who produced “Gaamer.” She added that the director will “not ever surrender to Russian pressure.”

She then screened the film, a 2011 drama about a young man of modest means who hopes to find a way out of his impoverished circumstance by winning a Quake tournament.

In a situation like this, every little bit matters, but given the weak Ukrainian economy, what amounted to a few hundred dollars in movie ticket revenue won’t make or break Sentsov’s case. Still, several audience members yelled out “Spasiba!” (thank you) after the film was shown, and dozens lined up to sign petitions afterward,  demonstrating the kind of grass-roots interest that has put pressure on leaders and other figures.

Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last week expressed concern about the jailing of Sentsov and Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who is also being held under hazy circumstances. A bevy of European film directors, meanwhile, including Wim Wenders and Mike Leigh, have signed their own letter demanding Sentsov's release.

On Wednesday, Viktorya Tigipko, the president of the Odessa Film Festival, whose husband is a former vice minister in the Ukrainian government, told The Times that she believed this was a sham that can and should come to an end soon.

“It’s a totally crazy situation. It's very clear they’re making him a showcase,” she said. “We’re doing everything possible to bring him home.”

(As his lawyers make a bid to see evidence and documents they claim are being withheld, Sentsov himself was able to make a speech from prison several weeks ago. Needless to say, he denied all charges and said he was not a serf who could be “transferred from one landowner to another together with the land,” an allusion to both his imprisonment and the Crimea annexation.)

High-profile protests that increase negative PR can have an effect in situations like this, as the music world learned when Russia released several members of the music group Pussy Riot before the Sochi Olympics, though of course not before a long prison sentence was served. In Iran, director Jafar Panahi, accused of spreading anti-government propaganda, remains under a filmmaking and film publicity ban that he has only gently begun to test; some, however, believe that his situation would be much worse if he weren’t as famous.

At an early moment in “Gaamer,” the main character, a young man named Koss, listens as a friend in their hardscrabble Ukrainian town tells him it’s impossible to attain greatness “in this hole.”

Koss replies, "Even a hole has a light at the end of it." Sentsov and his supporters can only hope they see it soon.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Artists and filmmakers make surprising leaps in 2014
    Artists and filmmakers make surprising leaps in 2014

    Exhibiting raw promise is one thing, but to exceed those initial flashes is something really special. Throughout this year, many filmmakers and performers were pressing on in remarkable ways, showing that even artists who have already exhibited notable skill, talent and accomplishment still...

  • Mark Olsen's best indie films of 2014
    Mark Olsen's best indie films of 2014

    Throughout the year people you thought you knew showed they were still full of surprises. In 2014, when some would see cinema as a storytelling mode and cultural force as an endangered species, these are vital signs of life. Here is Mark Olsen's top ten list of independent films:

  • Kenneth Turan's best films of 2014
    Kenneth Turan's best films of 2014

    What's the point of doing a 10 best list if you put only 10 films on it?

  • Daring films lifted the artform in 2014
    Daring films lifted the artform in 2014

    Like voices crying in the wilderness — rising above that vast wasteland of movie mediocrity — came the roar of the auteurs in 2014. A rangy group with varying aesthetics, they've left an indelible imprint on cinema despite the 400 or so of the marginal that clogged our theaters...

  • Everyone loses in a December deluge of films
    Everyone loses in a December deluge of films

    I try not to publicly argue with film legends, even those who are no longer alive. But when Mae West famously said that "too much of a good thing can be wonderful," she clearly was not considering a film critic's lot in December.

  • Goodbyes abound in 'Night at the Museum' as trilogy comes to an end
    Goodbyes abound in 'Night at the Museum' as trilogy comes to an end

    "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb," otherwise known as "Night at the Museum 3," rates as more determinedly heartfelt than the first and not as witty as the second (and best). Also, no Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart in jodhpurs this time around.